In years to come 2012 will be seen as the beginning of the frontier era in space. By 2030 there will be people on the Moon, Mars and in the free space between worlds. The first permanent communities beyond Earth will be founded, the first major products and inventions created there will have long since changed the markets and medical establishments of the planet, the first harvests of resources and energy from space will begin, and the first fortunes based on frontier-related activities in space will be made.

2012 will see those committed to settling space begin orbital delivery operations, private microgravity experiments on the space station and suborbital commercial human spaceflight tests. Recently, the revolution jumped another level, as a commercial space station company announced it is partnering with a commercial spaceflight firm, thus completely eliminating the government from the equation.

And yet even as some of today’s most savvy and wealthy business leaders begin to dive into this new ocean of possibility, many of yesterday’s space heroes, our government and the political class don’t get it.

The irony should not be lost that these things are happening in the same year a U.S. presidential candidate got laughed off the campaign stage for suggesting a human colony on the Moon — just days before a group of American entrepreneurs worth tens of billions of dollars announced plans to mine asteroids.

It is a disconnect of historic proportions, and raises the questions: Although it was launched in the U.S., what role will Americans play in the space revolution, and will it be with the support of or in spite of our own government?

The answers will determine not only the future of our nation and economy but also the speed and scale of what will be the most important leap forward in the history of our species. But we must be willing to look at the stark reality of where we are right now, and what must be done to assure what we do next in space is the right thing to do.

Of course we can continue on the current path. NASA can waffle and pick itself apart as those who try to embrace a new American space agenda battle those who are simply waiting for the good ol’ days to return. (News flash: They won’t. No matter who wins the election, “old space” is over.) Congress can continue its absurd waste of taxpayer funds on socialist dream rockets and ignore the potential market and job-creating power of those same dollars invested in a “new space” industry that is about to do the same job cheaper, better and faster anyway. Challenge-averse so-called leaders can continue to ignore the obvious reason and rationale for even sending humans into space, lest it mean they have to act, and in their denial doom our once-proud human space program to oblivion — even as their own citizens make it so.

But know this: None of the above will mean the end of the space settlement revolution. It simply will mean that billions of our dollars will be wasted on dead ends rather than used to catalyze and support a new path into the future. As this becomes ever more clear, Washington will become ever more irrelevant and NASA will become an embarrassing anachronism, fading into obscurity in the realm of human spaceflight, if it continues to exist at all, while its remaining functions are carved up among other agencies, and a chance is missed to combine the depth of our legacy with the promise of our future.

Irrelevance and absence from this revolution actually might be a good thing in some people’s minds, to be sure, but why waste our space legacy? And given that we have decided to invest several billion dollars in space each year, I would hate to see it just go away, leaving behind a bunch of bad policies and laws to slow things down.

So what can our government do right now to support rather than impede the American-led opening of the grandest frontier of all time? And how does NASA stay relevant? Simple: Lead, follow and get out of the way.

  • Lead: Declare that our national goal in space is settlement and resource development. (Pass a new Space Settlement Act.) Implement pro-settlement laws and policies. (Take an aggressive stand on property and intellectual property rights of U.S. citizens and companies in space.) Focus tax dollars on advanced science, astronomy, exploration and research beyond the reach of commercial investment. Support the genius of American space enterprise. (For example, make space investment a tax exempt activity.) Fund STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education initiatives.
  • Follow: Recognize and embrace nongovernment-developed technologies. Purchase goods and services from commercial vendors in every possible area of activity. (Buy the ride, not the rocket!) Don’t reinvent the wheel just because your people didn’t invent it the first time. (Don’t duplicate private research using tax dollars.) Offer prizes and support for activities and areas of advancement that are critical to knowledge and technology development but not yet in the realm of commercial investment. Become a solid customer for data and information acquisition from space.
  • Get out of the way: Rewrite the International Traffic in Arms Regulations and other laws blocking U.S. firms from smooth interactions with international partners. (Lower the paperwork barrier so small businesses can work globally without huge legal bills.) Drop the Federal Acquisition Regulation as the standard for contracts and get creative, with a focus on shared-risk research and pay-for-delivery purchases. (Use common-sense commercial best practices for acquisition. Build on NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program and apply it in other areas.) Move to the edge and build in commercial handoff from the beginning of exploration plans. (For example, practice for Mars on the Moon and then hand off the infrastructure needed to do so.)

It is the perfect time to act, to rise up out of the mediocrity that threatens to ensnare us and reach, no, grasp the stars. And we can do it. The Apollo generation wasn’t a historical fluke. It was the predictable result of what happens when a free nation actually decides on something and goes for it. We can do it again, do it better and do it for keeps this time. But we must decide. Will America as a nation support the settlement of space? Can we reach into our collective soul and still do something great? Or will we waste this chance to leverage and support the children of our creation and help lift them up and out to the far horizons?

Our new leaders are out there right now, working on the shop floors of “new space” firms, building, blowing up and building again the rockets of tomorrow in schools and labs and abandoned airfields across the nation, and pouring their fortunes into the realization of a dream given them by those who once took us to the Moon. Yet this time they are determined to not just get there and plant the flag, but to go beyond, to open Mars and free space itself, to build new civilizations and create new wealth for all humanity.

Those people and institutions who once led can still participate. They can even help lead if they act wisely and make the right choices. If they follow the evidence all around them they will see that it is a new day in space, and they must embrace it not just for the good of this nation, but for their own survival, lest they be pushed out of the way and left to wander in the wilderness of “remember when.”

Meanwhile, we are moving, with them or in spite of them.


Rick N. Tumlinson is the founder of the EarthLight Institute, the Texas Space Alliance and the Space Frontier Foundation.